101 films co-produced a new making-of documentary for Stephen Frears’ The Grifters. In which, a producer states that Martin Scorsese believed Jim Thompson’s novel of the same name was among the best crime novels that hadn’t been adapted and so sought to amend that fact. With the legendary Taxi Driver director busy working on Goodfellas and the Last Temptation of Christ, he didn’t have the time to work on another movie. Between Scorsese and his collaborators, they decided that the director of a small British film, My Beautiful Laundrette, was the right person for it. Not because there is any consistent theme between the two texts but because Frears was adept at presenting characters who weren’t common in American cinema.
In essence, the Grifters is about a young couple whose relationship changes when a long-estranged mother comes back into the picture. Being cut from noir stock, basic is the one thing this film isn’t for these characters are con artists. Roy (John Cusack) works short-cons in which he only makes small amounts of money and doesn’t attract the attention of any undesirables and he is in a relationship of sorts with Myra (Annette Bening), who as the film develops is revealed to have a history of dangerous long-cons. Trying his luck at bars, Roy is beaten up at which point his very young mother, Lilly (Anjelica Huston) comes back into the picture. To call Roy and Lilly estranged would be underselling the point, however, with all three of them together it is clear that we are observing toxic relationships play out with fatal consequences. To return to that feature-length making-of for a moment, the producers comment on how Frears refocused the source text. When it was words on a page the story was Ray’s, in the hands of this up and coming director, he twisted it to give Anjelica Huston’s Lilly the center-stage.
Although functionally noir, the execution isn’t quite the same. One of the core traits of a film noir is its dense plotting, that isn’t true here the first hour opts for a more vagrant construction with the movie instead serving character development and building the world. Another trait of the noir was their fast-talking ways, instead, Frears has installed a patience into the text that allows us to understand who the characters are rather than using (admittedly cool) archetypes who react when things go badly. Having that breathing room allows for some great character moments that are pounced upon with relish, especially by Huston who gets to play off a reluctant maternal instinct with the survivalist instinct it took her to survive in a violent world. One we come to understood explicitly after her Boss, Bobo (Pat Hingle) – a crime lord whose presence is never too far away – punishes her after he suspects foul play. I assume it was that very conflict that Frears found interesting. Huston too, she got her first academy award nomination for this turn. John Cusack too enjoys this space with a cool performance as Roy, a man who never truly trusts anyone and keeps everyone at arm’s length.
The 1990s was something of a golden age for the neo-noir, and as good as they often were it would be very hard to dispute that they were more often than not straightforward. They used modern skills to tell old stories of old Hollywood. The Grifters doesn’t play by those rules. Editor Mick Audsley drops punkish left-turns in from the very ground up with an opening scene that utilises a triple split-screen to imply that the main players are inextricably linked to one another. As he says in the accompanying making-of, he was told to express himself.
Finding ways to be unique is important for a genre that has been established since the 1940s, especially after its heyday, the same is true for the neo-western too – they need to find their uniqueness to be relevant to a contemporary audience. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with the way film noir was constructed, it is one of the most beloved styles of genre cinema after all. I am more interested in the ways Frears diverts from that norm. Whether that comes in the pacing, the female lead, the “femme fatale” being more dangerous than the sex symbols they would’ve been previously, or that its peaks are more akin to 1990s crime movie than something born from in the1940s.
Not everything has its hand in the anti-establishment, look no further than the music for the main offender. Television screens in 1990 were still dominated by the light police procedural in which a renegade cop (Columbo) or some other unassuming character (Diagnosis Murder or Murder she Wrote) solved murders, and by and large, they shared a similar musical footprint. Even if he was a composer “royalty”, Elmer Bernstein gave the Grifters a musical identity akin to those long-running TV shows. Unfortunately, an awkward anachronism was born from this as many scenes had a mutual tone with the more dangerous edges of 1990s crime. Not that Bernstein used the same piano work in those scenes, he scored those moments with sounds more like what you’d find in a horror movie. You can only really describe this as inconsistent.
Music can be re-scored and recut, so that isn’t enough to defeat this lost warm-up for one of the greatest eras of crime cinema. Stephen Frears Grifters is a great discovery and further proof that home video labels are more than something lost in the shadow of the omnipotent streaming landscape. Setting out a new stall by pairing The Grifters with one of Cronenberg’s final body horror flings (eXistenZ) is inspired, 101 films’ Black Label has opened shop with quite the statement of intent if you ask me.